Pitchers you'd pay to watch pitch

Originally Published: May 10, 2007
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

We're sure the Yankees had many fascinating reasons they thought a certain seven-time Cy Young Award winner was legitimately worth an annual salary of 28 million bucks. But the heck with those reasons -- because the Yankees knew they all boiled down to this:

There's a really, really good chance their customers would rather pay actual negotiable U.S. dollars to see Roger Clemens pitch than they would, say, Sidney Ponson.

That's a true fact. And it got us thinking:

Of all the pitchers on planet Earth right now, which ones would we be most willing to pay to watch?

New York YankeesIt seems like a fun little debate topic: Who's now the highest-paid player in baseball -- Clemens ($28M prorated) or A-Rod ($27M this year)? But it easily could have become more than academic. Why? Because Alex Rodriguez's contract contains an escalator clause that would be triggered by guess what? Yep, by the theoretically unlikely possibility (at the time) that someone might supplant him as the highest paid player during the life of his contract.

OK, relax. It's still a moot point for two reasons: (1) The small print says A-Rod would have to be passed by another "position player." And (2) the only thing that would happen if he ever were passed is that, if he didn't get a raise, he would get to opt out of the contract. And he'll be opting out anyway, now won't he?

Nevertheless, that who-gets-paid-more question still has some relevance because of precedents it could set for future contracts. So we posed it to several people around baseball -- and they couldn't agree, either.

A high-ranking official of one club was adamant that A-Rod was still your leader, because $28M was an artificial number.

"[Clemens is] only going to earn between $18M-$19M," the official said. "That $28M is just a base number to get him to the actual amount."

Surprisingly, one prominent agent agreed. "When we do an arbitration case," he said, "we always say you can't compare a one-year contract to a multi-year deal. So if we don't do it in arbitration, how can we compare them here" -- especially when Clemens is only on a multi-month contract?

But another agent begged to differ. "It's the number on the contract that counts," he said. "Not the net (income) the player receives. Do we start deducting amounts if the player is fined or suspended? What if he retires or is released?"

The precedent, he said, is that the dollar figure listed on the contract has always governed the assessed values of all deals. So this can't be counted as an exception -- meaning the Rocket is No. 1. But the trophy isn't in the mail for that prize, either.

So we started asking that question to just about anyone in baseball who felt like answering it. By the time we came up for air, we'd surveyed 20 general managers, assistant GMs or scouts.

And you know what we learned? That the state of modern pitching can't be as abominable as it's sometimes made out to be -- because 22 starting pitchers, eight closers and one bionic set-up man got at least one vote.

Out of that group, we formed a staff that consists of a five-man starting rotation, a closer and one special bonus selection -- the greatest set-up show on earth. So now we're proud to introduce them -- the Pitchers You'd Pay to Watch All-Stars. And we won't even charge you $28 million to read the rest of this column:

Nobody got more votes (13) than The Great Santana. And frankly, if anybody had, it would have been a bigger upset than Chaminade over Virginia.

It isn't every night you see big-league hitters miss pitches they swing at by three feet. But hardly an inning goes by when it doesn't happen with Santana on the mound.

THE REVIEWS: "Most dominant pitcher I can remember," said an AL GM who obviously had seen his team get overmatched too many times. ... "Cool. Calculating. In a hitters' league and a hitters' park." ... "Pure domination." ... "Oh -- and he's left-handed."

OK, here's a little confession. When we first hatched the idea for this column, Clemens was not the inspiration. King Felix was, after we'd caught his act against Daisuke Matsuzaka in Fenway.

We had to postpone that salute after Hernandez got hurt. But when the polling finally commenced, guess who got almost as many votes (12) as Santana? Yeah, it was The King, even though he's sub-.500 lifetime (18-19), has made fewer career starts than Joaquin Benoit and turned 21 only four weeks ago.

THE REVIEWS: One assistant GM spoke for the universe when he said: "Hopefully, his elbow trouble is no big deal, because he is the best young pitcher in a long time." ... "Definitely the most electric combination in the game of stuff and ability to pitch." ... "Best pure stuff in the game, and it's not really close. You pay and hope that's the night he throws the perfect game." ... And one more thing, said an AL GM: "He seems like the great hope of that entire [Mariners] franchise."

If we'd done this survey six weeks ago, the mysterious Matsuzaka might have been a runaway winner, just because we Americans were so curious about him.

Now that folks have seen him trot out there a few times, he apparently isn't quite as intriguing. But he still got as many votes (seven) as Clemens. And there's clear sentiment out there that we haven't even come close to seeing Dice-K at his best.

THE REVIEWS: "I'd only pay full price," joked one GM, "if I get to watch him warm up pregame." ... "Interesting to see an accomplished pitcher adjust to a new country, new league, new culture, new pressures." ... "I have fun just watching him manipulate the baseball." ... And it isn't only the stuff and the mix of cultures, said an NL GM. There's something else -- those "100 million dollars" the Red Sox had to cough up to import him.

We actually sensed a little $28 million sticker shock from some members of our panel -- a couple of whom aren't paying their whole staffs $28 million, of course.

When we did this survey, we grouped Clemens with a list of "historic figures" (Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Randy Johnson, etc.), for organizational purposes only. But one GM said, bluntly: "I would not pay to see any of the historic figures, because I would not want to contribute to their overpaid salaries anymore."

Ah, but that backlash goes with the territory. And elsewhere, we found no shortage of people who understand that every time Clemens pitches, it's an event.

THE REVIEWS: "Still has it for an old geezer," said one GM. "A great story of stamina, endurance, ability." ... "The epitome of the power pitcher, and the greatest right-hander of our generation." ... "One of the most successful, competitive and dominant pitchers ever."

We didn't expect Oswalt to make this list, because it seems as though this guy never makes any lists of the best anythings in baseball.

But inside the game, people know exactly what Roy Oswalt is: Total ace-hood. So he wound up with six votes, just beating out Dontrelle Willis and Roy Halladay.

THE REVIEWS: How's this for high praise? "Probably my choice if I had to win a big game right now," said one AL GM. ... "Watching him throw his curve ball is worth the price of admission." ... "The premier starter in the National League. He has that bulldog mentality that you want out of a starter, in which every pitch matters. He then has the stuff to back it up."

Full disclosure on this choice: Some people we polled couldn't bring themselves to vote for a closer, period. After all, this is supposed to be about pitchers we love to watch -- "and for me," laughed one GM, "it's hard to enjoy any closer. In that situation in a game, I don't know how you can possibly enjoy it."

All right, good point -- if you're a GM. But we're not running our staff out there without a closer. The shocker is that Wagner (five votes) nipped Mariano Rivera (four) and Jonathan Papelbon (three).

Then again, how many other 5-foot-10 middleweights do you run across who were born right-handed and throw 100 mph left-handed?

THE REVIEWS: "I like closers that can put on a show with their stuff and intensity," said one assistant GM. ... "I still marvel how a pitcher that [small] can generate that much velocity," said another.

We weren't going to include any set-up men. But a couple of our panelists were so vehement about the Human Radar Gun, we relented, even though Zumaya is now on the Tigers' disabled list for the next three months.

"How can you not get excited to see a guy consistently touch triple digits?" asked one assistant GM.

Good question. And we have no decent retort. So Joel, welcome to the Pitchers You'd Pay to Watch All-Stars. The trophy isn't in the mail.

Roger Clemens will head back to the Yankees with a .662 career winning percentage (348-178). But if we lower the bar from 500 decisions to 100 or more, we find that five active pitchers actually have a higher winning percentage than the Rocket. Can you name them? (Answer later.)
OTHER STARTERS WHO GOT VOTES: 5 -- Dontrelle Willis and Roy Halladay; 4 -- Pedro Martinez; 3 -- Tim Lincecum (after ONE career start), Matt Cain, Greg Maddux, Jake Peavy and John Smoltz; 2 -- Rich Harden, Justin Verlander, Cole Hamels and Livan Hernandez; 1 -- Erik Bedard, Josh Beckett, Tom Glavine, Jamie Moyer and (believe it or not) Tim Wakefield.

OTHER CLOSERS WHO GOT VOTES: 4 -- Mariano Rivera; 3 -- Jonathan Papelbon; 2 -- Joe Nathan and Trevor Hoffman; 1 -- Francisco Rodriguez, B.J. Ryan and Francisco Cordero.

In Other Rumblings

• Gee, we hate to change the subject. But the most significant pitching story in the AL this week may have had zilch to do with Roger Clemens. The bigger question, we think, is how the loss of Joel Zumaya, for at least three months, impacts the Tigers' whole M.O. "That's a big injury," said one AL GM. "But their bullpen is so deep and so good, they can probably overcome it if [Fernando] Rodney gets going. The one thing it does do is, it makes them a more human team. Before this, they were so good, they were almost superhuman." No kidding. As Booth Newspapers' Danny Knobler reported, as good and as valuable as Zumaya is, the Tigers actually have a better record this year when he doesn't pitch (12-7) than when he does (8-5). And after 32 games, amazingly, they have the same record this year (20-12) as they had last year.

Roger Clemens • After watching the Clemens negotiating extravaganza play out, one AL front-office man wondered: "Doesn't this have to be his last year? After picking the Yankees, you won't be seeing him sign with the Red Sox next year. That's for sure. And he's probably eliminated Houston forever. So isn't this it?"

Makes sense. But Clemens' agent, Randy Hendricks, told Rumblings: "I never rule anything out. In 2004, the Yankees didn't even want Roger back, and they were lukewarm toward Andy [Pettitte], and they were both embraced in Houston. Fast-forward three years, and it's the opposite. So I never rule anything out. How can you?"

• The next time you hear someone say Clemens can't possibly be as good in the American League as he was in the National League, toss these numbers into the discussion: It's true Clemens feasted on the bottom of those NL lineups. No. 8 and No. 9 hitters batted a combined .162 against him last year, with one home run. But wait. Those No. 3 and No. 4 hitters were actually worse (.143, with no homers, against him in 98 at-bats, with 31 strikeouts and only 14 hits). So what does that tell us?

"He didn't lead the NL in ERA for no reason," his old catcher in Houston, Brad Ausmus, told Rumblings. "The difference is that the quality of the NL 3- and 4-hole hitters is comparable to the 3-, 4-, 5- and 6-hole hitters in many AL lineups. So, facing two very good hitters every time through the lineup is tougher than facing four. And it is certainly tougher to pitch around four tough hitters than two tough hitters." All good points. But we need to remember, Ausmus said, that this applies "to all pitchers, not just Rocket."

• Finally, before we assume the addition of Clemens automatically elevates the Yankees back into the race, remember that until he shows up, the only benefit the Yankees will get out of this signing for the next three weeks is all psychological. Which may explain why, in the words of one baseball man, "I've never seen a team so collectively happy to pay anybody so much money." But in the meantime, says one scout, "they still have to survive and hang with Boston till Roger arrives. And whether they can do that will be up to the bullpen. The way they've been going, Joe may kill the 'pen before Roger ever gets there."

• Has anybody noticed the one Barry Bonds story lately that the whole world seems to have missed? Bonds' agent, Jeff Borris, has. "If the season ended today," Borris said, "isn't Barry the MVP?" Well, yeah, as a matter of fact -- the brilliance of Jose Reyes, Chipper Jones, Derrek Lee and J.J. Hardy notwithstanding. Bonds is back to being his .800-slugging, .500-on-base-percentage, lead-the-league-in-homers self again. And he's creating three more runs per 27 outs than anyone else in the league. "He's even played left field decently," said one NL exec, with slight amazement.

• Over in the American League, just one player was ahead of Bonds in that runs-created stat before he got hurt -- Jim Thome. He was at 15.65 runs created per 27 outs, barely leading Bonds' 14.99. So when one AL front-office man was asked if he could have envisioned the White Sox being this bad offensively (heck, they've scored 70 fewer runs than the Yankees through Wednesday), he replied instantly: "Without Thome? Yeah, I could."

• Here's the take of one AL exec, who hadn't seen a lot of Bobby Abreu in the NL, on the half-dozen games he has seen Abreu play this year: "Last year, after he came to the Yankees, he really looked energized. But this year, he's a very passive guy. To see him come up there twice in big situations (against the Red Sox) and try to bunt, I thought, 'That's amazing.' Even in RBI situations, he's just very content to take his ball four and go to first. Look, I believe in the value of walks as much as anybody. But these were passive walks. They weren't active walks, if you know what I mean. I think I'm starting to understand why the Phillies traded him." Digest this fascinating stat: Abreu's OPS leading off an inning is .912. But with runners in scoring position, it's only .600.

The Rumbling Continues

• OK, we know we hinted we were through with the Roger Clemens notes. But hey, just kidding. Two more to go. Final Clemens Note No. 1: Assuming the Rocketeer doesn't pitch against Boston in the Yankees' three-game series at Fenway on June 1-3, he'll already have missed all but six games of this year's AL East Holy War. Why 12 of the 18 games in this rivalry would be crammed into the first 54 games of the season makes no sense to us. But the effect is, that scheduling means the Yankees will have played two-thirds of the most important season series of their year without having their rotation at full throttle.

• In non-Clemens news, how dominating has Jake Peavy been for San Diego? In his last three starts, he has gotten almost twice as many swings and misses (60) as balls put in play (34). "It's not too often," said one scout, "that you're scouting a series and you know a guy is going to pitch and you're really looking forward to it. But I had that feeling with Peavy. And it was a lot of fun. I loved watching him. Bulldog attitude. Terrific stuff."

• Heading down the stretch last season, Adam LaRoche got 17 hits in one week. This year, he had 18 hits all season through Wednesday. "I'm starting to think he's a guy who can't be one of the best players on a team," said one scout. "He can be a complementary hitter, a 5- or 6-hole hitter. But he's not a No. 4 hitter. In Atlanta, people were always worried about Andruw and Chipper, and oh, there's Adam LaRoche. But in Pittsburgh, the focus is always going to be on him and Jason Bay. And that's a whole different deal."

• The Brewers' big test is coming. They haven't won a series against a team with a winning record since the first three games of the year. But their next six series are against the Mets, Phillies, Twins, Dodgers, Padres and Braves. "They're a nice team," said one scout. "But we won't find out how good they really are until they get out of the NL Central. Right now, that's one awful division."

Johan Santana (.713), Pedro Martinez (.691), Roy Oswalt (.678), Roy Halladay (.669) and Tim Hudson (.667).
• All right, this is it. Final Roger Clemens Note No. 2: Here's one more thing to bear in mind when you attempt to project how many games Clemens might win. Only three non-knuckleballers age 44 or older have ever won 10-plus games in a season -- Tommy John, Satchel Paige and Nolan Ryan. But even if Clemens adds his name to that list, the funny thing is, Jamie Moyer might beat him to it. "He's remarkable," one scout said of Moyer. "He could keep pitching for a long time. He could pitch against Julio Franco in the year 2020. They'll both be drawing their pension -- and still collecting their major league salaries at the same time."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com